It’s been the standard procedure for decades when it comes to healing an injury: either put an ice pack on it or apply heat to it. Various research shows each method has its merits, but which one, hot or cold, is actually the most effective?
It turns out both heat and cold can help with the healing process – it simply depends on the situation and type of injury.
Here we’re breaking down which one you should reach for and how to use it effectively, so you can heal from that oops even faster.
If you’ve ever taken a hot bath after an intense workout, used a heating pad on a sore muscle, or hopped in a sauna, you’ve already had some experience with using heat to heal.
Heat therapy works by increasing circulation and blood flow to areas of your body, which can usher in more nutrients and oxygen to help speed up healing. It can also help relax and ease sore muscles and tense areas (which is why a hot bath often feels so good when you’re sore) or to apply a heating pad to your head or neck to ease a tension headache.
Research shows that applying heat following an intense workout helps preserve muscle strength and reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, that achy muscle soreness we sometimes feel 2-3 days following a workout. [*]
Interestingly, studies also show that heat therapy can improve “local immunity” within wounded areas. [*] In other words, heat increases the number of helper cells from your immune system that flood to an injured area, which could help ward off infections and further heal damaged tissue.
Types of Heat Therapy and When to Use Them
Before you decide on a type of heat therapy to use (i.e.: sauna or bath), keep in mind that different types of heat can have different benefits. In general, moist heat, which includes steamed hot towels and warm baths and compresses, is thought to be more effective for immediate pain reduction in muscles. Dry heat, such as saunas, heating pads, and dry heating packs offer similar effects but are more useful for long-term and whole-body applications to promote circulation and damaged tissue repair. [*]
Use heat therapy for:
• Overuse injuries
• Easing muscle tension
• Improving circulation
• Full-body relaxation
When Not to Use Heat Therapy:
Typically, heat therapy shouldn’t be used for acute injuries or on injuries that are bruised or swollen. It also shouldn’t be used for open wounds. Also, be sure to ask your doctor before using heat therapy if you have any preexisting conditions such as heart disease or hypertension.
In general, when you think heat, think: ease and circulate.
Heat Therapy Tools:
• Heating pads
• Saunas (infrared and regular)
• Hot water bottles
• Steamed or heated towels
• Warm baths
• Warm compresses
So, how do you know when it’s time for that ice pack as opposed to heating things up?
First, a little lowdown on how cold therapy works. Unlike heat, cold reduces blood flow to injured areas. It constricts blood vessels rather than opening them, while also helping to bring down swelling, which is particularly effective for combating inflammation and reducing the risk of tissue damage.
In addition, cold can also act as a numbing agent or local anesthetic to ease the pain. This is the reason RICE, or rest, ice, compression, and elevation is the gold standard for treating sports injuries.
Studies also show cold immersion, such as taking an ice bath, can help prevent muscle soreness when done shortly after exercise. [*] However, unlike heat therapy, cold is mostly a pain reliever and doesn’t necessarily aid in repairing tissue.
When to Use Cold Therapy
• After recent injuries
• Strains that result in inflammation
When Not to Use Cold Therapy
• If the affected area is already numb
• On an open wound
• If experiencing shock or a nervous system issue
• Immediately before activity
As a general rule, also avoid applying ice directly to your skin, as this can cause irritation or a “cold burn.”
Cold Therapy Tools
• Ice packs
• Ice baths
• Cooling gels or salves
We wanted to linger for a moment on the value of using a “cooling” gel or salve when it comes to easing pain and fighting inflammation throughout the day, especially in scenarios where you don’t have access to an ice pack or other forms of cold.
A gel or cream like our hemp-extract-infused cooling gel not only helps cool the affected area with natural ingredients but also adds another layer of potential pain relief with hemp oil. Plus, it’s tote-able, so you can take it to work or while traveling.
The Bottom Line
To get to the nitty-gritty of when to use heat vs when to use ice for pain or injuries:
As a general rule of thumb, use ice for acute injuries or pain, along with inflammation and swelling. Use heat for muscle pain, stiffness, and tension, and to promote relaxation.